Saturday, October 06, 2007

shadow puppets and starlings

Darkmans is a very hard book to hold - at the beginning it pulls you towards the right, and by the end it starts to swing you back the other way. It dents your knees and strains your wrists. It’s exercise without leaving the armchair. It is also a hard book to review, but not, despite my fears, a hard book to read.

Reading Darkmans was a bit like changing TV channels and coming in halfway through a programme. You don’t know who the characters are or what’s going on, what type of programme it is, or how long its been on for - but you find yourself strangely drawn in, transfixed, unable to turn away.

And 838 pages later you’re not much clearer on what you’ve been reading. In fact you’re likely to be left with two main questions - what happened? and did I like it? Plot is a slippery beast in the hands of Nicola Barker. I would say that Darkmans deals loosely with a network of friends, enemies, acquaintances and relatives grouped in or around Ashford, Kent.

‘Nanna Spivey - was so old that she had hardly any teeth or skin or hair. She looked like a fractious newt or a newly born kitten. The veins in her temples and on her hands were the same shade of blue as willow-pattern china.’

History, both near and distant haunts many of the characters despite never departing from the modern day. Barkers’ skill lies in creating a novel that feels so unusual without messing with the form, mainly through loose plotting and an undying faith in the power of minutiae. Scenes imbued with fairy tale imagination (a jar of feeding fleas tethered by invisible thread) are bordered by passages of mundane realism.

‘He carefully inspected his hands. He frowned. He chewed off the jagged tip of a broken thumb-nail. He inspected his hands for a second time. He stopped frowning. He took out his phone. He re-checked his texts.’

Her descriptions are often striking and memorable, especially when writing about people -

‘As she talked, her hands neatly and rapidly dissected her third consecutive clementine, clambering over the individual segments like a pair of frantic but purposeful albino spiders.’

Although as the novel goes on it can feel like she over-describes everything. In progress reading Darkmans felt like a pleasurable and worthwhile experience. But afterwards I am left unsure - was I awestruck, or bored, confused or enlightened? Is this novel a bold and brave epic, or is Barker just trying to see what she can get away with?

To stick with my novel as food analogies, which are becoming rather frequent, I think Darkmans would be oysters - we are not encouraged to linger over the taste, or get our teeth stuck in, we just have to throw our head back and swallow.


Stefanie said...

So now that you've had a chance to let it sink in, have you come to any definite conclusions?

jem said...

Its still a tricky one to pin down Stefanie. To stick with my television analogy - it feels like I watched a tv series - enjoyed it at the time, but afterward cant really say what I enjoyed about it, or what it was about. And I increasingly start to wonder if I didnt waste quite a bit of my time on it, with no clear benefit.

Which leads on to questions about what makes a book good? do we have to understand it? do we have to feel it made sense? taught us something? entertained us? or merely amused us for a few hours?

So, still not that definite!

Stefanie said...

Interesting assessment!